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    Pastor, Heal Thyself?

    Supporting ministry leaders to face the mental health challenges of their difficult and lonely calling.

    Amy Simpson

    But like other schools, Trinity hasn't overlooked the importance of spiritual habits and self-care. Dr. Keith Bjorge, assistant professor of counseling and chair of the counseling department at Trinity, says, "We are very passionate about spiritual formation, re-forming the student, continuing to make disciples." Every professor leads a spiritual formation group, getting to know students spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. Professors can speak into their lives and help them with challenges. But there is more: "There's an aspect where the professor will look at [a student's] fitness for ministry. Is the program a good fit?"

    As for the struggles students bring with them to seminary, Holeman says, "Seminary is not a magical pill that makes all your mental health woes go away." In fact, Holeman has observed that seminary can cause disruption to a previously well-managed mental health condition. "Seminary is not a spiritual retreat; it's an academic setting with pressures that come with it. God uses seminary to refine students spiritually, but it can also activate symptoms. Students need to be aware of that and find support for it."

    Seminaries are taking seriously their responsibility to provide students the help they need, along with services for maintaining health. Trinity, Bethel, two campuses of RTS, and Western Seminary all have counseling centers on campus. Asbury has an active referral program, helping students find what they need among counselors in the surrounding community.

    Hope for the Church

    So what's the hoped-for outcome of this investment in students' short-term and long-term mental health? "Honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses so someone leaves seminary with a strong sense of how they will fit into the job," says Coffield.

    Holeman emphasizes self-understanding as well: "Students will come to know themselves and their areas of vulnerability so they will be able to put into place whatever practices are needed to sustain them through difficult periods in ministry." She also voices her hope that "students who come to campus with mental-health diagnoses will feel they can find support here, set realistic expectations for themselves as students, and learn how to manage the illness in a way that allows them to thrive. They'll need that skill when they get out into ministry."

    Others hold similar hopes. For those students who pursue vocational ministry, Western Seminary's Thiesen desires "greater wholeness spiritually and relationally. Greater knowledge of God's Word and the skills to present it well, but also an internalized application of it … a lived-out experience of the grace of God."

    "We're being an instrument in forming in students the image of Christ," Dr. Bjorge says. In addition to self-understanding and self-management, he wants students to leave Trinity with "a sense of what's going on in the people around me, what the people in my care are experiencing. How can I come alongside them appropriately and help them through the experience and manage their relationships well?"

    Ultimately, a healthy ministry student who becomes a healthy church leader results in a healthy church. "Leaders are the key to effective organizations," says Bethel Seminary's Clark. "Leaders are like the spring, and no river will rise higher than the spring. No organization rises above the level of its leader. We want to produce spiritually mature, emotionally healthy leaders for ministry."

    After all, the motivation for providing mental-health support is the same as for providing seminary education. In Clark's words, "It's for the building of the kingdom of God to the glory of God."

    Amy Simpson is the author of the award-winning Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press), a Co-Active personal and professional coach, a speaker, editor of Gifted for Leadership, and senior editor of Leadership Journal. You can find her at and on Twitter @aresimpson.

    For more on this topic, see Shepherding the Shepherds.

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